Q: Write a short essay for multimedia designers titled "Tufte's Top Ten Tips for Designing Visual Explanations."
A: Edward Tufte's Visual Explanations is a guidebook through the field of information design both for static and animated representations. Through a series of thoughtful examples, Tufte lays out his framework for effective, informative graphics (the book, in itself, is an excellent example of information clarity that does not lack style and sophistication). In multimedia design, finding a common ground between content and style can be quite difficult. Fortunately, many of Tufte's guide-points work as well with electronic displays as they do with traditional printed media. With the aim of helping multimedia designers design better, I have synthesized ten main points of Tufte's design guideline (in no particular order).

1. Tufte talks about the "smallest effective distance" ­ making all visual distinctions as subtle as possible, but clear and effective. He has noticed that "if everything is emphasized, nothing is emphasized." He suggests muting secondary elements to reduce visual clutter (which clarifies primary information), using a minimal contrast between figure to ground (producing visual hierarchy).

2. Unless viewers are familiar with the content in a photograph or scene, it may be quite difficult to determine the size and scale. Tufte recommend giving images and artwork a sense of scale through constant sizing and/or the addition of an everyday object for reference (such as a chair or a person). Think of geologists who always add a ruler and/or person to their pictures for scale reference.

3. Direct labels are much more effective than codes or legends. Whenever possible, incorporate figure labels into the figure. It is easier for onešs eye to identify labels when they are closely connected to the actual item, as opposed to having to constantly glance between a legend or chart and the figure.

4. Selecting the best place to break data groups for statistical information is important. Try representing the data in different forms ­ different types of graphs, different axes scales, different map styles, etc. ­ to find the most accurate display. In many cases, a combination of graphs/maps may be best.

5. Comparisons help strengthen results. Tufte says "numbers become evidence by being in relation to." When making a point, add additional graphics and charts that show your information in comparison to similar instances/information. People will understand and accept your results more readily if offered comparisons.

6. Tufte stresses the concept of "parallelism" which "synchronizes multiple channels of information, draws analogies, and enforces contrasts and comparisons." Parallelism has both spatial (items next to each other) and temporal (one item followed by another) components. It shows repetition, comparisons, and change with multiple images of the same thing, differing slightly in some fashion. Examples include pairing, superimposition, analogy, and adjacency.

7. Another Tufte concept is "multiples." "Multiples directly depict comparisons, the essence of statistical thinking." They also "represent and narrate sequences of motion." Since viewers must interpolate between images, choose break points carefully and try different arrangements (alphabetical may not be best). Also look for "accidental commonalties in design" which can create false groupings to onešs eye (such as unintentional color placement).

8. When presenting information, Tufte recommends telling the audience "what the problem is, why the problem is important, then what the solution to the problem is." When explaining complex ideas or data, engineer the presentation to start "particular" then get "general" and end with "particulars."

9. When dealing with a collection of many visual elements, try designing the content into "compartments." Boxes or call-out circles can organize pits if information into a cohesive arrangement. But be careful to ensure the primary information is most noticeable.

10. "Let the information become the interface." Tufte feels that too much precious screen real estate is lost to decorative, thematic interfaces. He thinks "flat interfaces" offer users more options by immediately offering the majority of choices. Interfaces that unveil information gradually do not effectively communicate the information.